Summary

The error message

Cannot 'squash' without a previous commit

means you likely attempted to “squash downward.” Git always squashes a newer commit into an older commit or “upward” as viewed on the interactive rebase todo list, that is into a commit on a previous line. Changing the command on your todo list’s very first line to squash will always produce this error as there is nothing for the first commit to squash into.

The Fix

First get back to where you started with

$ git rebase --abort

Say your history is

$ git log --pretty=oneline
a931ac7c808e2471b22b5bd20f0cad046b1c5d0d c
b76d157d507e819d7511132bdb5a80dd421d854f b
df239176e1a2ffac927d8b496ea00d5488481db5 a

That is, a was the first commit, then b, and finally c. After committing c we decide to squash b and c together:

(Note: Runninggit log pipes its output into a pager, less by default on most platforms. To quit the pager and return to your command prompt, press the q key.)

Running git rebase --interactive HEAD~2 gives you an editor with

pick b76d157 b
pick a931ac7 c

# Rebase df23917..a931ac7 onto df23917
#
# Commands:
#  p, pick = use commit
#  r, reword = use commit, but edit the commit message
#  e, edit = use commit, but stop for amending
#  s, squash = use commit, but meld into previous commit
#  f, fixup = like "squash", but discard this commit's log message
#
# If you remove a line here THAT COMMIT WILL BE LOST.
# However, if you remove everything, the rebase will be aborted.
#

(Notice that this todo list is in the reverse order as compared with the output of git log.)

Changing b’s pick to squash will result in the error you saw, but if instead you squash c into b (newer commit into the older or “squashing upward”) by changing the todo list to

pick   b76d157 b
squash a931ac7 c

and save-quitting your editor, you'll get another editor whose contents are

# This is a combination of 2 commits.
# The first commit's message is:

b

# This is the 2nd commit message:

c

When you save and quit, the contents of the edited file become commit message of the new combined commit:

$ git log --pretty=oneline
18fd73d3ce748f2a58d1b566c03dd9dafe0b6b4f b and c
df239176e1a2ffac927d8b496ea00d5488481db5 a

Note About Rewriting History

Interactive rebase rewrites history. Attempting to push to a remote that contains the old history will fail because it is not a fast-forward.

If the branch you rebased is a topic or feature branch in which you are working by yourself , no big deal. Pushing to another repository will require the --force option, or alternatively you may be able, depending on the remote repository’s permissions, to first delete the old branch and then push the rebased version. Examples of those commands that will potentially destroy work is outside the scope of this answer.

Rewriting already-published history on a branch in which you are working with other people without very good reason such as leaking a password or other sensitive details forces work onto your collaborators and is antisocial and will annoy other developers. The “Recovering From an Upstream Rebase” section in the git rebase documentation explains, with added emphasis.

Rebasing (or any other form of rewriting) a branch that others have based work on is a bad idea: anyone downstream of it is forced to manually fix their history. This section explains how to do the fix from the downstream’s point of view. The real fix, however, would be to avoid rebasing the upstream in the first place.